By guest preacher Lindsey Seegers at St. Paul’s Cathedral on September 24, 2023
There were more days than not this past week when I woke up in a funk. Everything felt harder and heavier than it needed to be. And even though those are the mornings when it’s hardest to get out of bed, it’s the mornings I know I must wake early to spend time with Mary. Yes, I do mean the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver.
In her poem entitled “Drifting”, Mary wrote, “I didn’t intend to start thinking about God, it just happened. How God, or the gods, are invisible, quite understandable. But holiness is visible, entirely.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that poem this week: God, the invisible; holiness, the entirely visible.
I don’t know about you, but I encountered even more headlines lately about how millions of Americans have stopped going to church. MSN just posted an article “Opting Out of Sunday Service? 10 Reasons People Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore.” So, this morning, I greet you in gratitude. Thank you for being here, thank you for saying yes to gathering in community today. Whether you are with us in this space, or joining online from afar, our hearts are connected this morning.
My friend, Rachel, a Methodist pastor in Maryland, posted an online survey in response to NPR’s story: the search for a church that isn’t a church. She asked non-ordained millennials who still attend: why do you go?
Now, I don’t love being lumped into one category of people—who does?—but, by birth year, I am technically a millennial.
So, I replied to Rachel: What is it that brings me—a non-ordained, presently childless, millennial—to in-person worship? The list of reasons that popped into my mind, in no particular order:
- It is the intergenerational friendships most of all.
- It is comforting to be surrounded by people who have also Been Through It. We are not expected to be shiny happy people—we are together here in our humanness, acknowledging the ebb of happiness and heartache.
- I like slowing down for an hour in the week, for an hour of prayer and contemplation I may intend to but not actually take on the other six days.
- I come to church because I don’t have to excel at anything or perform.
- Sometimes, I just sit and cry because it is a release to be in the quiet, alone but still in community, before God.
- I go for the sermons.
- I go to be among those I might not otherwise meet in my day.
- The beauty of the architecture and music fills me.
- The Book of Common Prayer is a comforting, familiar friend.
- And, I enjoy how surprised my friends are by the unexpectedly hip and progressive pieces of the otherwise traditional Episcopal church.
That’s my millennial answer. I’m curious what draws you out of your schedule to choose a community worship experience? What keeps you here?
Growing up Catholic, the cadence of Sunday church was simply a given. I appreciated that in my experience of the Catholicism, there was a strong emphasis on social justice. So the notion of today’s Gospel lesson: the last shall be first—that one was ingrained early on. I was born in Washington DC, and throughout my childhood bore witness to the stark contrast of power, privilege, and poverty. It was not hard to miss who our society deems, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these”. My understanding of this phrase: these individuals are the least heard, least appreciated, receiving the least access to resources and understanding and equity. Not least in terms of importance. And Jesus is setting that straight in today’s Gospel. It’s all about the inversion.
It’s interesting to note the placement of today’s parable in Matthew, and the stories that precede it. Just one chapter before “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, Matthew highlights another status inversion where Jesus declares that children are the ones to whom heaven’s reign belongs. And then a rich man stumbles when Jesus challenges him to renounce his wealth to benefit the poor. Put these together for an unmissable point: we think we know who’s made it, who deserves it, who’s earned it—but the author of Matthew makes it clear: the world claimed by God’s rule turns things upside down.
When you’ve been adopted, there is never one moment you forget this fact of your origin story. As a little kid, and at the time, quite the rule-follower, hearing every Sunday that Jesus commanded us to “tend to the poor”, I paid a lot of attention to people sleeping on the sidewalks of our nation’s capital: in the doorways of banks, and on the cold marble steps of the Founding Father’s monuments. Maybe adults have death and taxes as their certainty, but I had this certainty as a child: I was chosen into an alternate life. I was adopted into a different family, a different future. And one of my youngest memories is passing these blanketed men and women on the brutally hard, icy sidewalk and thinking: …if I had not been adopted… would that be me?
It was that curiosity mingled with some Catholic-infused conviction that drew me to volunteer at soup kitchens as early as they would let me. I remember distinctly looking into the eyes of a young man, not many years off from my own age, and I’m passing a roll and ladling some soup into his bowl and thinking: there is absolutely nothing I have done to deserve, to earn, being on this side of the table. It’s by utter chance that I have a bed, a roof.
I remained connected to the unsheltered community throughout high school and college, moved by all that we have in common, the intertwining of our lives and geographies and stories. More than anything, we shared laughter. True, aching laughter. Anne Lamont calls laughter “carbonated holiness”. And it was just that: God hidden inside human flesh, and holiness oh-so visible.
This conviction, humming loudly within, took me to Port-au-Prince, Haiti in high school with a nonprofit called Food for the Poor. My heart drew me again and again to Jesus’ “least”: the least appreciated, the least resourced, the least heard, the least seen by our society. Throughout the villages of Haiti, it would be easy to believe that God’s invisibility signals a lack of divine presence and intervention amid such poverty, hunger, disease, and unimaginable living conditions.
But the holiness was unmistakable.
One prayer I encountered, translated from Haitian Creole, goes: “Oh Lord, make you and me like coffee with milk. Mixed together we can never be separated.”
With all credit to modern medicine, you can safely touch people afflicted with leprosy. I never felt more connected to Jesus’ journey than that moment, a 17-year-old, hugging Haitians with missing limbs and holes in their body; those for whom Jesus called us to care.
Soon after moving to San Diego, I served in a nonprofit for justice-impacted adults emerging from decades-long incarceration. In our first interactions, the weight of shame was ever-present. But as that shame lifted through the weeks of the program, our eyes met along with our hearts. And we bonded over food and humor and generosity, and shared countless moments of carbonated holiness. We may have held different names for God, but the sacredness of our bond, the holiness of this transformation week after week could not be mistaken for anything other than divine.
Among God’s overlooked children I’ve encountered face-to-face, there is immense heartache, and struggles to make it through day-to-day. This heaviness is an experience, at some level, we share with those still suffering on the sidewalks.
One antidote to hopelessness is the experience of wonder and awe. It’s not so challenging to rekindle our own state of wonder gazing at the beaches and sunsets and mountains. I wonder: why is it easier for us to experience this groundedness, this recentering, in the experience of nature, or God’s creation… but not so often seeking in one another? God has shown me again and again there is much joy and wonder and awe to be experienced within the unexplored connections, common stories, and common places of our overlooked neighbors.
I have the honor of spending my weekdays on this very campus in my work with Voices of Our City Choir. We are a nonprofit offering a safe, creative community for our unsheltered neighbors and those impacted by homelessness. When our organization, and our Choir, moved onto St. Paul’s campus a year and a half ago, some choir members said to me, “You know, I haven’t always had good experience with church people, but I really like this church and these people.”
This is what our choir members said about you, about your welcome, to this place where God may be invisible but something bigger than us is entirely visible. Voices’ music & arts programming create space for liberation and healing. Our choir members change the perception of homelessness as they take the stage—where the last become the first to speak. At the microphone, Voices’ choir members are empowered advocates and changemakers.
While I could tell you about the wonder and awe and connection that happens, right here, every day at Voices of Our City, I hope you’ll come see and hear it for yourself. We meet in the Great Hall every Monday at 11am. Together in our weekly songwriting workshop, members write original songs about joy and resiliency. Here are the lyrics they wrote last Monday:
Falling Upward By: Voices of Our City Choir
Despondent and weary / I’m low to the ground
Steps feel heavy, cemented and bound /Can anyone hear me?
I need to be found / The mud of despair is holding me down
How did I get here? / Where do I go?
There once was a light / Now I’m not sure
Am I still dreaming? I want to believe / There’s something out there waiting for me
We know your pain / We’ve been there before
We understand / Hope is waiting and chains are breaking
Love is the plan
Catch me I’m falling upwards.
Good morning, my friend / Won’t you come inside / tell us your name, so glad you’ve arrived / there’s room at our table, we’ll make you a plate / we’d love to hear your voice, let us explain / the music connects us, lets our soul be free / gives us a sense of purpose, hope, and relief / I see it the spark in you that someone saw in me / with trust, we’d love to be your chosen family
“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) We , the church, we get to be the acorn that spawns 1000 flourishing forests. We get to be that. We don’t need the news to tell us church numbers are dwindling. We see that we cannot wait for somebody else to act, to contribute, to donate. Jesus came in the form of human flesh. He was a humble, human, a carpenter, hanging out with the least seen members of his community. Even to Jesus, God was invisible. And yet holiness was always visible. These are the stories we still tell. Jesus encountered holiness among the overlooked, the least, the last, the underpaid, the undervalued, the unheard, the unseen.
Holiness may be easier to see, to accept, to encounter, to abide in nature. And, it is very much here in one another. Look around: we are the hands and feet, called to serve, called to open our eyes.
Love is the plan.